'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them': Cannes Review

'Eleanor Rigby,' Ned Benson (Un Certain Regard)

Benson’s romantic drama originally screened as a two-parter in Toronto last year under the title The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. The Weinstein Co. picked up the title -- which chronicles the dissolution of a marriage between Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy -- after its TIFF debut and will be using Cannes as a launch pad for the movie’s fall release stateside. (Sales: Myriad Pictures)

Less is less in this conventionally re-edited version of a sensitive, talented debut film.

Writer-director Ned Benson’s contemporary love story starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy returns to the screen 68 minutes shorter than its Toronto incarnation.

Originally unveiled at the Toronto Film Festival in a 191-minute version that was novelly divided into two parts called "Him" and "Her" and told from two different perspectives, Ned Benson’s accomplished all-star feature debut screened in the Certain Regard section in a brand-new 123-minute cut entitled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Shedding 68 minutes of running time makes a hefty difference in the way the story is told and how it feels to watch it. As might be imagined, the shorter cut will have brighter commercial prospects as a smart, romantic date movie when it is released stateside by The Weinstein Co. at the end of September. It is also a far more conventional film and, as it turns out, a much less fascinating journey with the characters. More committed audiences would do well to invest in the whole shebang when the full two-part film finds limited art house release later in the fall, and enjoy the intense and engaging performances from Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy that bring the well-written screenplay to life.

In line with the film’s college focus, this could make a unique teaching tool for film students studying point of view. In the long version, the breakup of a marriage is seen first through the young husband’s eyes, then the wife’s, in two semi-autonomous parts running about 90 minutes each. It is even theoretically possible to screen Him and Her in a different order, reversing the film to Her and Him. In the aptly titled Them, their POVs alternate as in most films, depending who’s on screen (one of them always is). That change makes a big difference.

Although all the main characters and plot points survive the transition intact, they don’t carry the same weight. Him and Her have an undeniable literary, collegiate feeling, like reading a long novel and getting to know the characters inside out. Them steps on the accelerator in a sort of Cliffs Notes version. It’s not that there’s too much story to tell; the problem is that Conor (McAvoy) and Eleanor (Chastain) and their assorted families and friends don’t have time to grow on you, and the viewer makes less of an investment in their problems. The whys and wherefores have been edited out, and the changes that took place over time — screen time — now take place in a classic, familiar narrative arc.

As the curtain rises, Conor and Eleanor are charmed young lovers for whom life is a game, though ominously he asks her not to break his heart in the first scene. Cut to Eleanor jumping from a bridge. In-between events are gradually revealed. They got married and lived in lower Manhattan, where he has a small restaurant and bar. But after a great tragedy strikes, they begin to pull apart. While both of them are traumatized, they react in different, perhaps gender-specific ways that lead Eleanor to disappear from Conor’s life. Still in love, he becomes obsessed with finding her and getting back together.

Conor is struggling to make his way in life independent of his thrice-married father (played by a wonderfully wry Ciaran Hinds), the dean of fashionable New York restaurant owners. The economic downturn forces the separated 33-year-old Conor to move into Dad’s townhouse, though he refuses to talk about what has happened.  Similarly, Eleanor returns to her family’s sprawling house in the suburbs with her French mother (Isabelle Huppert), whose career frustration is symbolized by a wineglass that never leaves her hand, and her father (William Hurt), a college professor and therapist who has trouble communicating. She’s very close to her sister, Katy (Jess Weixler), a county librarian with a little boy, who has given up other ambitions. And there are long scenes with a straight-talking teacher (Viola Davis) who becomes a friend. All of these characters are worth knowing, and the acting and dialogue are excellent all around.

Chastain and McAvoy are highly expressive but also quite different actors, and it’s sometimes a bit difficult to imagine her anthropology student and his foodie businessman being so passionately in love. Chastain brings an edgy nervousness to the role that can verge on the irritating, while McAvoy is out-going and as lovable as a teddy bear; as Eleanor remarks, “He went soft and I stayed hard.” It’s an interesting gender reversal and one Benson explores thoroughly in the longer version. The final scene is truly affecting.

Tech work is sensitive but unobtrusive, taking maximum advantage of authentic New York locations. Good and bad songs play a big role on the soundtrack, with New York alternative hip-hop composer Son Lux supplying the former. Not a single note of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby is heard. It isn’t necessary: You sing it to yourself.

Production: The Weinstein Company, Myriad Pictures, Unison Films, Dreambridge Films, Standard Deviations, Kim and Jim Productions, Division Films
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler
Director: Ned Benson
Screenwriter: Ned Benson
Producers: Cassandra Kulukundis, Ned Benson, Jessica Chastain, Todd Labarowski, Emanuel Michael
Executive producers: Kirk D’Amico, Peter Pastorelli, Brad Coolidge, Melissa Coolidge, Jim Casey, Kim Waltrip
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Kelly McGehee

Editor: Kristina Boden
Music: Son Lux
Sales: Myriad Pictures
No rating, 123 minutes